6 NOVEMBER 2004, Page 98


Tale of doom

Mark Steyn

The Grudge

15, selected cinemas The Grudge has a marvellous opening. / Bill Pullman, looking more harassed and floppy-haired than he did even after having sex with a goat in his recent Broadway play, wakes up one morning and strolls out to the balcony. His sleepy-eyed wife comes to, sees him over by the balustrade and says hey, someone woke up early this morning. He shoots her a frazzled look and then ...

Well, let's leave it there. What the opening's about isn't anything new. But the way it's filmed, Pullman's face, Rosa Blasi's reaction and the placid early-morning tempo of the scene make it very real.

The next 90 minutes are another story — literally so, in many respects. The Grudge is an American remake of a foreign film — which, as specialist categories go, is pretty much a shoo-in for the alltime dud. But those of us reaching reflexively for the rotten fruit stayed our hand upon discovering that, in this instance, the Hollywood remake is by the same fellow who made the original: Takashi Shimizu, whose Ju-on: The Grudge was big in Japan last year and has become a minifranchise among horror fans over there. Nor did anyone insist Shimizu relocate the story to Buffalo or Des Moines. His tale of doom still takes place in Tokyo. The only difference is that he's flown in half-adozen Americans, led by Mr Pullman and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

For an American movie, it's an oddlooking cast — the men are nondescript and the women are pleasant-looking enough, but dressed very ordinarily; nobody looks special enough to be in a Hollywood movie — not even Sarah Michelle Gellar, who's made-up and filmed most unflatteringly. To my mind, she looked a bit rough in Scoohy-Doo 2, but at least the clothes were groovy. Here her huge eyes, without the Buffy liner, look tired and her short chin, lit drably, gives her a rather sucked-in effect. Aside from Grace Zabriskie's turn as an elderly woman with silent dementia, the most memorable faces on screen are Japanese — Yuya Ozeki reprising his role as the creepy kid and Ryo Ishibashi as a Tokyo version of a Fifties TV cop.

If the cast looks ordinary, you should see the plot. There's this house, and it's haunted. Let's hold it there for a moment: if you do a haunted-house movie set in America or Europe, you go for architecture. Creepy New England Gothic, Transylvanian castle, there's no end of options. By comparison, very few Japanese house styles seem to offer the same possibilities. The haunted pile Mr Shimizu gives us is a bland, small, functional modern town house. That would be an interesting way of exploring psychological terror and, indeed, when you think about it, a haunted-house plot set in a 1990s Barrett homes cul-de-sac in Milton Keynes might be rather fun. But Shimizu's terrors are all out of the A-Z of Horror Clichés. People open up doors, light switches don't work, they climb into crawl spaces tucked under the eaves, and get pulled up, dragged down, sucked in, etc. The trouble is the house looks too flimsy and Japanese to have so many strange dark Gothic corners. Even the frequent creaks seem cheesy, given that there don't seem to be enough big timbers in the thing to generate any.

Meanwhile, despite the house's accumulating mound of horrors, people will keep looking into it — an American couple, a member of the caring professions, Miss Gellar. ... Shimizu films every episode the same: someone's sitting around the house, hears something, goes into the closet, reaches into the sink, aaaaieeeeeeeeeee!!!! — and blackout. In a Taranteeny way, he chops up the narrative and re-assembles it out of order, but, in a horror film, you have to understand things from the perspective of the one who's terrified, and the point of view here is very unclear. Miss Gellar is the principal character, but, unlike Buffy, utterly passive. You can admire aspects of Shimuzu's technique, but, even then, the film seems to fade into nothingness before you're halfway across the lobby to the exit.

Maybe it's the arbitrary episodic feel or the bland set or the washed-out beige decor, but I was reminded of those series you used to see late at night on ITV years ago — Roald Dahl's Tales Of The Unexpected, Hammer House Of Horror . . . I only ever watched them if I'd just come in late and switched on ten minutes in and Prunella Gee, Prunella Scales or some other Prunella entirely would be taking her kit off. Not a lot of that here. But, if you want to see Miss Gellar do her range of Buffy facial expressions without the benefit of make-up, this is the film for you.